U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Israel and the U.S. agree Iran must be stopped from attaining the ability to build a nuclear bomb while differing on how long it will take Tehran to reach that point.
U.S. plans to sell Israel advanced weaponry, including transport aircraft, missiles and refueling planes, are a “another very clear signal to Iran” about the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, Hagel told reporters on the plane taking him to Israel, the initial leg of his first Mideast trip since taking office in February.
“Israel and the U.S. see the threat of Iran in exactly the same” way, Hagel said. “So I don’t think there’s any daylight there. When you break down into the specifics of the timing of when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences but generally I believe our intelligence is generally very close to each other.”
Hagel repeatedly affirmed Israel’s sovereign right to take military action to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability, a message that was also the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s visit to the Jewish state last month.
Hagel, who overcame a contentious confirmation process when several U.S. lawmakers and outside critics questioned his views on the Jewish state, arrived in Israel today at the start of a week-long trip to the Middle East that includes stops in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The focus of the trip is to reach agreements to sell $10 billion of U.S. weaponry to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., according to U.S. defense officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity before the deal is announced.
Asked if the U.S. plan to sell Israel advanced weaponry is a signal to Iran that a military strike is a possibility, Hagel said, “I don’t think there’s any question that it’s another very clear signal to Iran.”
Israel, like the U.S., questions Iran’s assertion that its nuclear program is peaceful, designed for energy and medical uses. Israel has said Iran must be pressured to curb its nuclear program with a “credible military threat.” The U.S. and Israel have both said a military option is on the table.
The U.S. plans to sell Israel an unspecified number of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft, air defense radar and KC-135 refueling tankers; the U.A.E. will probably buy 26 F-16 jet fighters; and the U.A.E., Israel as well as Saudi Arabia will also buy precision missiles, U.S. defense officials told reporters on condition of not being named before the deal is announced.
The missiles being discussed include an unspecified number of the U.S. Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile, a new weapon being bought by the U.S. Navy, the official said. The missile, made by Alliant Techsystems Inc., is capable of attacking ground radar used by countries fielding sophisticated integrated air defenses, such as Syria and Iran.
If the transaction goes through, it would be the first foreign sale of the V-22 tilt-rotor made by Boeing Co. and Textron Inc.’s Bell Helicopter unit. The U.A.E. already ordered 80 F-16s made by Lockheed Martin Corp. in the late 1990s, and Saudi Arabia operates a fleet of Boeing-made F-15 jets.
Hagel said his visit to the region is also intended to discuss the situation in Syria, where opposition forces have been battling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Obama administration continues to debate how to provide military aid to the rebels.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced the U.S. would offer more non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels. Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers last week that it was getting harder to distinguish between moderate opposition groups and those aligned with radical elements.
Hagel said there were no differences within the Obama administration about aiding the opposition groups.
“What Secretary Kerry is doing is exploring at the direction of President Obama new options for enhanced support, non-lethal support,” Hagel told reporters. “And I support that and General Dempsey supports that. Those are options are that should be discussed and explored.”